Researchers in Arizona reflect on the psychological benefits of religion

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Susan BarretoSusan is an author with a long interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the online magazine of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member of the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our bodies are ourselves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

A new analysis from the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, published in Perspectives in Psychological Sciencesexplores whether the benefits of religion are unique to practicing religion or to being religious.

The study concludes that while religion is important, there is no strong evidence that some effects of religion are special. As the researchers point out, the findings come at a time when surveys show fewer Americans consider themselves religious.

The research team reportedly looked specifically at how religion affects morality, self-control, death anxiety, health and well-being. They then asked if these benefits could occur in another way.

“It’s important to understand how religion gets results,” said Adam Cohen, professor of psychology at ASU, in a news release about the research. “If God blesses you, that’s something that can’t be replicated through secular means. But if what’s important about some of the effects of religion is that it brings you into a community of people who care about you, it’s useful to know.

For example, the element of punishment for misbehavior has much the same effect as reminding individuals of the existence of a police force.

Yet when it comes to health, the outcome may be different. The researchers said that some studies report that religious people live longer. They say that, based on their analysis, some studies have concluded that the effect of regular attendance at religious services is on par with the use of cholesterol-lowering statins.

According to ASU, the project was supported by the Department of Defense and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse.

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